Auden – ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ Analysis

You can read ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ here:

‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ is (like ‘If I Could Tell You’) a poem about the fate of love (and indeed life) in the face of Time. It was originally intended by Auden to be set to music – which explains the regular rhythm – and its style is that of a literary ballad. Elements of the dramatic are evident in the dialogue, for example.

  It begins with a first person account of an evening walk, but even in the first stanza Auden begins foreshadowing events later in the poem. The phrase ‘The crowds upon the pavement / Were fields of harvest wheat’ serves two purposes. The first is that it hints at human mortality. Comparing the crowd to a harvest conjures images of reaping, and this fits well with our idea of ‘Death’ as a character, often portrayed as carrying a scythe. There is also the suggestion that people are no more important than ‘harvest wheat’, and their death is of no more consequence, although Auden does not clarify the metaphor any further. The second purpose of these lines is that they strike a balance between the urban ‘pavement’ and the rural ‘fields’, and indeed this is a poem of balance. Optimism and pessimism. Life and death. Auden begins the contradictions subtly, building up to the stream of paradoxes in the second half of the poem and the ultimate irresolvable conflict between love and Time.

  The second stanza introduces the ‘lover’ – a stranger to the narrator and a vessel for all the positivity in the poem. It is perhaps significant that the narrator cannot provide this positivity himself. The emphatic opening line of the song ‘Love has no ending’ is in itself something the reader might want to believe, but it becomes more difficult to take seriously as the song continues and the lover’s claims get more outrageous; ‘I’ll love you / Till China and Africa meet, /And the river jumps over the mountain / And the salmon sing in the street’, ‘till the ocean / Is folded and hung up to dry / And the seven stars go squawking / Like Geese about the sky’. The hyperbole throws into doubt the enduring nature of love, and considering what follows we might see the lover as naïve. The heightened language here is balanced by the harsh realism to come, and eventually mirrored in Auden’s fantastical ‘land of the dead’.

  With the end of the lovers’ song comes the end of the poem’s optimistic half, and the original statement about enduring Time is challenged by ‘all the clocks in the city’ chiming out the reminder ‘You cannot conquer Time’. This is the antithesis of the lover’s optimism and what follows is a list of cases where Time has the upper hand. Auden begins by describing the ‘burrows of the Nightmare / Where Justice naked is’ – this image is particularly unsettling because we like to imagine Justice personified as a composed and upright woman, but to imagine her as ‘naked’ almost connotes violation and certainly vulnerability. While this happens, Time ominously ‘watches from the shadow / And coughs when you would kiss’. These lines are a reminder of mortality – and the inevitability of wastage and illness. As is the case in ‘If I Could Tell You’, Time is portrayed as a superior onlooker.

  The sinister passage of Time continues as ‘Vaguely life leaks away’ and ‘threaded dances’ and ‘brilliant bow[s]’ are broken. Every line is rife with pessimism and Auden’s wording brilliantly connotes the misery of aging. We then reach an interesting stanza where the clocks chiming becomes an instruction; ‘plunge your hands in water, / Plunge them in up to the wrist’. This has been the topic of much debate, but could be a reference to suicide. It would not be surprising, considering the tone of the poem thus far and the fact that suicide is the only sure way to avoid the slow and painful degradation that has been described (Auden himself considered suicide as a ‘right of choice’ for anyone who, certain of defeat, ‘wished to end their game with life’. If it is indeed suicide that is being discussed, then to ‘wonder what you’ve missed’ would likely be a person, in their dying moments, wondering what life would have held for them had they decided to continue. Alternatively, this stanza could simply be capturing a mundane moment where a person washes their hands and is suddenly overcome with a feeling of insignificance, and ‘wonder[s]’ about the many things that they will not have Time for in their short life.

  The following stanza contains natural scenes on a gigantic scale and simple domestic images juxtaposed with them – ‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard’, for example. This bizarre idea is only an introduction to what is to come. The surreal and disturbing lines ‘The crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead’ are themselves a lane that the reader follows into ‘the land of the dead’ that is described in the following three stanzas.

  Auden’s underworld is full of unsettling and uncomfortable paradoxes, ‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes’ and children’s stores are twisted so that ‘the Giant is enchanting to Jack’ (suggesting sexual appeal) and ‘Jill goes down on her back’, which again seems sexual and suggests promiscuity. Amid these dark and disturbing images comes another reminder that ‘Life remains a blessing’ that we are powerless to ‘bless’ ourselves with. In other words, life and death are beyond our control and the ‘land of the dead’ is our final destination, no matter how ‘distress[ing]’ we might find this. Again the chiming instructs us ‘You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart’. This is a paradox because we would think a ‘crooked neighbour’ could not be loved while a ‘crooked heart’ cannot harbour love. It could be that Auden is suggesting that only a ‘crooked heart’ could love a ‘crooked neighbour’, and this seems to expose a lack of faith in humanity. The frustration and confusion of this idea might be the cause of the tears that ‘scald and start’ and which are anticipated by the chimes.

  The final stanza finally moves back to the narrator’s voice rather than the chiming of the clocks. We are told that it is now ‘late, late in the evening’ and that ‘the lovers … were gone’. This implies that a significant amount of Time has passed since the start of the poem, and we can easily imagine the narrator standing on the riverbank, absorbed in these thoughts about life and death even after ‘the clocks had ceased their chiming’, in much the same way that this poem stays with the reader. The last line is incredibly poignant, as the narrator notes ‘The deep river ran on’, despite the lack of chiming clocks. Time continues whether or not we count it. The river imagery is a common way to express the passage of Time simply because it is inevitable and by describing it as ‘deep’ Auden reminds us for a final time that it is ultimately incomprehensible.

  It is down to the reader to decide whether it is more disturbing to contemplate the same issues that the narrator does, or to understand that the dark response of the clocks is the narrator’s own interpretation of the otherwise innocent sound. In either case, this poem is an evocative examination of a basic human fear, brilliantly structured for maximum emotional impact.




·      Charles Osbourne, WH Auden The Life of a Poet, Michael O’Mara Books Limited, 1980

The Tempest – Music & Magic

‘Where should this music be? I’th’air, or th’earth?’ In ‘The Tempest’, music and magic are jointly responsible for the enchanting atmosphere of the island – an atmosphere that is as strange to the characters as it is to the audience. The dramatic impact of this atmosphere is vital to the play, and equally magic has an important role in the plot.

The original setting of ‘The Tempest’ was not The Globe, but the candlelit Blackfriar’s Theatre. As Trevor Nunn explains in his BBC documentary, control of light was key in hiding the mechanisms for magic special effects as well as creating a more eerie atmosphere. Sound and music were important in this. For example, the masque Prospero puts on for Miranda and Ferdinand is a visual and musical spectacle – and relies on good stage effects in order to be convincing, and help to blur the lines between illusion and reality. This is an important feature of the play, as the audience watches a performance within a performance and even the characters are not sure what is real. This is illustrated when Miranda first sees Ferdinand and – knowing her father’s ‘art’ – asks ‘What is’t, a spirit?’. This blurring of boundaries is why Nunn described ‘The Tempest’ as ‘more imaginative in the kind of staging it demands’ than any other of Shakespeare’s plays.

The most important character when it comes to magic is Prospero. Familiar with the notorious Doctor Dee, Shakespeare’s audience would have no trouble accepting that a man as well-educated and dedicated to learning as Prospero would be able to perform magic. It allows him to have power over the other characters and direct the course of the play, aided by Ariel, a spirit he has enslaved who ‘performs, at his master’s bidding, music, songs and masques.’ (Andrew Green). This is significant, because ‘Music and sound are Prospero’s most frequently employed means of control’ (Green). With songs that hypnotise characters to sleep or to follow a path dictated by Prospero, Ariel has been compared to a performer, acting out the will of Prospero the composer. These songs are equally able to manipulate the emotions, as well as the actions of the characters who hear them. Ferdinand is convinced by the song which begins ‘Full fathom five thy father lies…’ that Alonso is dead. We understand the extent of the power that music has when Ferdinand later says ‘this music crept by me upon the waters, / Allaying both their fury and my passion’. This is a confusion of two biblical references; in Genesis the spirit of God hovers of the water, and in the Gospels Christ calms a storm, standing on the surface of the waves. Critic Andrew Green believes this establishes music in ‘The Tempest’ as ‘an incontrovertible spiritual power’.

It is perhaps no accident, then, that musical imagery is used when political power is discussed by Prospero. He says of Antonio that he ‘set all hearts i’th’state / To what tune pleased his ear’. It seems fitting that ‘Prospero employs music to civilize his island’s discordant elements’ (Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan). Of these, none is more discordant than Caliban. Though he has evidently been punished by his master with ‘cramps’ and frightening sounds, Caliban (perhaps unexpectedly)is most attuned to the strange music that the island has to offer. He tells Stephano and Trinculo ‘Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.’ This strangely sensitive speech exposes the magic inherent to the island, not the artificial or learned magic Prospero brought with him.

A question at the heart of the play is whether Prospero can be trusted with the power that his magic brings. In recent years he has been played as a more punitive and frightening master than benevolent governor of the island. To modern audiences, his treatment of the island natives Caliban and Ariel is unjust, and his threats to torture Caliban or peg Ariel in the ‘knotty entrails’ of an oak make him unlikeable. There is the suggestion that his power – so great that ‘At my command graves have waked their sleepers’ and that he has ‘bedimmed / The noontide sun’ – has crossed the line into being sinister, indicated by that fact that this speech echoes that of Medea from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphosis’. The audience wonders if Prospero’s magic is dark magic, just like Medea and Doctor Faustus before him. The difference, of course, is how Prospero resolves the problem – ‘this rough magic I here abjure’. With a melancholic (according to Nunn) and oddly peaceful promise to ‘drown [his] book’, Prospero abandons magic altogether.

From the New Historicists perspective, this act of Prospero’s mirrors Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, for ‘The Tempest’ was his last solo play and – like Prospero – Shakespeare leaves his ‘art’ and his home in London to return to Stratford where, perhaps, ‘every third thought shall be [his] grave’.

This is what makes Prospero human. Like Ariel, his magic made him a little austere and inaccessible. Ariel’s humanity can be found in his need for approval (‘Do you love me, master?’), and Prospero’s is found in his loss of his magic, his island, and his daughter. The ‘insubstantial pageant’ that is magic and illusion cannot satisfy Prospero, or indeed the audience. The human drama that almost ended in a revenge tragedy is needed to make the music and magic of the play have any meaning. As Nunn suggests, ‘Shakespeare uses his magical island to investigate the truth about human nature’. The dramatic impact of ‘The Tempest’ does not hang on the special effects, though they certainly enhance it. In fact, it has been suggested that the most important and impressive feat of Prospero’s is that of forgiveness.



‘Sound and Music in The Tempest’ – Andrew Green

Shakespeare Uncovered: Trevor Nunn on ‘The Tempest’ (BBC documentary)

Vaughan’s Introduction to The Tempest (Arden edition)

The Tempest – William Shakespeare


NB: This is definitely not exhaustive where magic and music are concerned because it was written under timed conditions (an hour). Far more detail is available in the sources listed 🙂

‘The Voice’ Analysis – Hardy & Losing Emma

You can read ‘The Voice’ by Thomas Hardy here:

Thomas Hardy wrote ‘The Voice’ after the death of his first wife, Emma. They had grown apart during the later years of their marriage, with Hardy and his secretary having an affair through Emma’s illness, which eventually killed her. Paradoxically, on losing her Hardy was overcome with guilt for his neglect. His love for Emma was rekindled and he felt terrible sadness. The poem, written primarily in the first person, is about an illusion of Emma’s voice heard by Hardy after she passed away.

Hardy uses a number of techniques in conveying a sense of loss in ‘The Voice’. It starts in his powerful opening to the poem, ‘Woman much missed’. It is clear from the outset that the poem is one of lamentation. He directly addresses his dead wife, showing the potency of her presence to him. The repetition: ‘how you call to me, call to me’ is suggestive of the urgency and desire he feels on hearing her, and displays how insistent and incessant the voice is in his mind.

Hardy believes here that Emma is telling him she has reverted to the way she was when they first met, when she ‘was all to me’, as he puts it. This demonstrates his longing for her, and for the love they shared at the beginning of their relationship.

The second stanza has the feel of a ghost story. Hardy longs to see Emma because he can’t be sure that she is real: ‘Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then’. He wishes that she would appear to him, and again he wants an apparition of her as she was before they became estranged, ‘standing as when … you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then, even to the original air-blue gown’. The ‘air blue gown’ is suggestive of wind, which links into the next stanzas, but also says something about the delicacy of his delusion in that moment. In that brief time he can hear her voice calling to him, but is as unable to hold onto it as he is to hold onto the wind.

In the penultimate stanza doubt begins to set in, ‘Or is it only the breeze’. The entire section is one long question, emphasizing his growing uncertainty. There is also lots of sibilance, with words such as ‘listlessness’, ‘across’, ‘dissolved’ and ‘wistlessness’ being used. These are an onomatopoeic imitation of the sounds of the wind, showing how the breeze may be mistaken for a calling voice, and thus we believe that the voice is just Hardy’s imagination.

The final stanza demonstrates a collapse of his illusion via a collapse of the structure used in the poem until this point. The first three stanzas had a rising iambic and anapaestic rhythm, suggestive of the hope Hardy felt at the possible return of his wife. That hope had been fuel to him for the first part of the poem, but now it has gone, and as he breaks down, a breakdown in the syntax also seems inevitable. Lots of caesura and endstopping is used to create a faltering rhythm, in keeping with Hardy ‘faltering forward’. This phrase suggests that even though there is no hope of Emma coming back, Hardy cannot help his love for her, but because she is gone he can take no comfort in this love. Life forces him onward, but his renewed feelings for his dead wife keep him stumbling. There is also the imagery of ‘leaves falling’, and ‘wind oozing thin’. This suggest that winter is coming, the leaves are dying, and the wind which fuelled Hardy’s illusion is becoming still. This bleak scene matches the mood of the poem at this point, and emphasizes the fact that there is nothing for him now that Emma is gone.

Because of the effectiveness of the techniques Hardy uses, the sense of loss – both of the woman and of the delusion that kept her present – in this poem is overwhelming. The impression of a baron landscape at the end, when Hardy comes to realise that Emma has truly left his world sums up the emotions tied in with being lost as to how to cope with the death of a loved one.


England, Edward Thomas & The War

When asked why he had enlisted to fight in the First World War, Edward Thomas bent down and picked up a handful of earth, replying ‘Literally, for this’. In many of his poems his love of England and his motivation to fight is evident, and this is what I shall explore. Thomas spent much time deliberating whether or not he should go to fight in France. World War One had already begun when he started writing poetry, and much of it contains evidence of this indecision. He was too old to be expected to fight, and any decision about going was therefore entirely his.

Thomas often uses events in nature as metaphors for his own feelings – the thrushes singing in ‘March’, for example, represent the uncontrollable outpouring of poetry he experienced. Where war is not explicitly mentioned, Thomas uses the same technique to imply it. This is evident in ‘Rain’, where ‘myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff’ represent the soldiers who died at war. Another use for nature in this poem (as in several others) is a link for Thomas between himself and the men he is unsure about joining in France. This is important, because as he explains in ‘The Sun Used To Shine’, the war is so far away that ‘our eyes could as well imagine the Crusades or Caesar’s battles’. He minimizes this feeling of distance by believing that the ‘rain’ falling on his ‘bleak hut’ is the same ‘cold water’ that they were experiencing. This bond he forms with the soldiers via the natural world could be an indication of his sense of duty to become one of them. Indeed, this feeling of obligation is shown in ‘March’, where the thrushes found ‘then ‘twas no time for singing merely’. This poem was written in December of 1914, and though the war had begun just five months before, this line seems to be an indication that he felt a decision must be made. In reality, it would take over two years of constant vacillation before he did.

Although Thomas refused to subscribe to the encouraged bloodlust or hatred for his enemy, certain aspects of the war seem to appeal to him. There are suggestions in a few of his poems that it awakens his unique ability to see beauty in terrible things. This is a concept evident in ‘The Glory’, where he explains his desire to ‘seek as far as heaven, as hell’. To Thomas, it is not the pleasantness of a feeling which is important, rather its intensity. In ‘Melancholy’, he values his sadness and finds ‘sweetness’ in it. Many of the contradictions found throughout Thomas’ poetry come from his capacity to appreciate both good and bad. This, in the context of war, is particularly evident in ‘Tears’, which concentrates on two memories that Thomas found incredibly poignant. The first is a hunt; ‘twenty hounds … in a rage of gladness upon the scent’. The ‘rage of gladness’ is the epitome of this poems theme, capturing Thomas’ admiration for the beauty in violence. The second is the changing of the guard at the Tower of London, where ‘A charm mightier than any in the Tower possessed the courtyard’ below. What appealed to Thomas about this were the ‘soldiers in line, young English countrymen, fair-haired and ruddy, in white tunics’ – they seem to be exemplar Englishmen. There is, however, a contradiction between ‘fair’ and ‘white’ which connote innocence, and ‘soldiers’ and ‘ruddy’, which are reminders of strength and violence. Despite this contrast, there is harmony in their unity of purpose, just as there was in the hunt. Thomas concentrates on the fact that the dogs were ‘all equals … made one, like a great dragon’. The mention of the ‘dragon’ makes the image more surreal, and as well as the beauty of such a sight, the feeling of danger is never lost as dragons are commonly thought of as breathing fire. The same effect is achieved when imagining the mass movement of soldiers. Thomas is both attracted to these events and unnerved by them, enjoying the unity itself but seeing horror in the reason for it.

It is clear that Thomas does not fall for propaganda and doesn’t view becoming a soldier himself as a glamorous prospect. In ‘Gone, Gone Again’, he says ‘the war began to turn young men to dung’. This is different from the attitude of many people at the time and certainly from the way we feel about fallen soldiers today. We like to remember them as heroes, but here we are given a harsh reminder that death, wherever it occurs, still turns us to ‘dung’. By ‘dung’ Thomas means earth, but it has connotations of waste, and the word ‘waste’ itself reminds us of the futility of the loss. Instead of celebrating the glory of the war, this poem reveals Thomas’ view that it makes the lives of the ‘young men’ meaningless.

One of the most important aspects of the war to Thomas seems to be the destructive effect it had on the English countryside, which he values more than almost anything else. This is particularly evident in ‘Aspens’, where the trees witness a ‘lightless pane and footless road’. Here he is talking about the empty streets and darkened windows, representing the absence of people because so many have gone to fight. This theme continues with ‘a silent smithy, a silent inn … in the bare moonlight or thick-furred gloom’. These places should ordinarily be filled with noise – ‘the sounds that for these fifty years have been’, but again nobody is present. The ‘bare moonlight’ adds to the atmosphere of emptiness, and contrasts the ‘thick-furred gloom’, a phrase which gives a dense, claustrophobic quality to the darkness, almost as if it is so quiet that the silence has become oppressive. It is significant that the most important aspect of this poem is that with or without people, ‘whatever wind blows’, the aspens will continue to be present in the village. This is suggestive of Thomas’ trust in nature to carry on, much like the hope represented by the lovers returning from the wood in ‘At The Team’s Head Brass’.

‘As The Team’s Head Brass’ is a poem where Thomas deals with the issue of war’s impact on the countryside more directly. It is largely dialogue between himself and farmer as they discuss the influence of the war on that one particular farm, with the ploughman giving specific and personal examples: ‘Only two teams work on the farm this year. One of my mates is dead’. He also mentions an elm ‘the blizzard felled’ and the fact that as a consequence of so many men going away to fight, it will only be moved ‘when the war’s over’. This remarkably practical approach to the effects of war is most evident in Thomas’ admission that he would fight ‘if [he] could only come back again’. He has clearly given a lot of thought to what might happen to him if he did go, saying ‘I could spare an arm, I shouldn’t want to lose a leg.’ He then says that if he lost his head, he ‘should want nothing more’, demonstrating his feeling that death is the one thing he does not have to fear the consequences of.

Thomas’ most obviously angry poem concerning war is ‘This Is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong’, written after an argument with his father who had been demonizing the Germans. It is, for Thomas, quite literal in it’s meaning, and begins by establishing that ‘politicians or philosophers’ are not qualified to judge the situation. He says ‘I hate not Germans, nor grow hot with love of Englishmen’. This expresses his distaste for jingoism, describing his father as a ‘fat patriot’ toward whom he feel so much hatred that in comparison his ‘hatred of the Kaiser is love true’. He feels that the newspapers are filled with propaganda to the point when ‘dinned with war and argument [he] read[s] no more than the storm smoking along the wind athwart the wood’. This is simply a way of saying that his awareness of the war comes from its physical impact abroad rather than the petty discussions taking place in England, and by embracing the natural side he rejects the politics.

Despite his distaste for discussing it, Thomas hopes for an end to the war from which ‘an England beautiful and like her mother that died yesterday’ may rise. This idea of a chance for renewal continues with the mention of a phoenix. The final stanza of the poem concentrates on the reason that Thomas did eventually go to war – the English countryside. He admits to being ‘one in crying, God save England’ ‘with the best and meanest Englishmen’. It is not love of the country he objects to, but love of its inhabitants giving rise to hatred of the Germans. He explains this: ‘as we love ourselves we hate our foe’. The extent of Thomas’ bond with England is exposed in the line ‘The ages that made her made us from dust’. This shows that he feels we come from the soil of our country, and are therefore all connected to its landscape and history. In fact, in this poem Thomas expresses a love for the land that he could never feel towards another person. These lines expose why Thomas gave the explanation he did when asked why he was going to France – he didn’t feel he could do nothing while the country he loved might be lost.


Much Ado About Nothing – Comparing the Couples

In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a parallel is drawn between conventional Elizabethan couple Claudio and Hero, and their opposites in Benedick and Beatrice. Claudio is a typical example of a male in Shakespeare’s day, and Hero is quiet and obedient, as was expected of a young woman. Benedick and Beatrice’s relationship challenges the conformist and patriarchal expectations of their society, and the audience can clearly see that despite this, the love between these two is much deeper than that between Hero and Claudio. There are several aspects of the play which demonstrate this.

Firstly, for all they profess to hate each other, Benedick and Beatrice have an acute interest in each other’s lives. It may be masked by mocking, but neither of them have much to say not concerning the other. Beatrice’s first line of the play is ‘I pray you, is Signor Mountanto returned from the wars or no?’ She is referring, albeit insultingly, to Benedick, and her question displays the fact that she is concerned for his safety. If she truly cared nothing for him, she would not need to ask, but in fact she interrupts two men talking with her remark, ignoring convention completely in her boldness. A reversal of this situation comes in Act 2, when Benedick sees Beatrice coming and pleads Don Pedro to ‘command me any service to the world’s end’, claiming ‘here’s a dish I love not, I cannot endure my Lady Tongue’. Yet Benedick does not leave when he sees her approaching as he could easily have done. The fact that his words are not in accordance with his actions, and his apparent hatred, shows he is suppressing deep passion, and his claims about being unable to stand her are not actually genuine. Claudio and Hero have no such problems to overcome, their relationship is predictable and not so conflicted. In comparison, they have it very easily until Don Jon’s deceit leave Claudio with the wrong impression about Hero.

Secondly, Benedick and Beatrice’s love overrides their apparent revulsion of marriage. They both have to swallow their pride and go back on their words in an utter reversal of their opinions, yet they still manage to do it, and the reason is that their loves goes even deeper than their long-held beliefs. It is altogether easier for Claudio and Hero to be in love – they are conventional in every sense. Their marriage also works well in financial terms as well as for the status of the two families. They face no real hurdles when it comes to their own attitudes towards being wed; they both expect it, with Hero looking on it as more of inevitability rather than a destination to be avoided. She doesn’t even display a discernable desire to marry Claudio, only a passive obedience to her father’s will. She may not even be in love, but that does not seem to her enough of a reason to object. Marriage, as it was in Elizabethan times, suits Hero and Claudio’s characters perfectly, with none of the internal struggle faced by Benedick and Beatrice.

Another important difference between the two couples is that, before his return to Messina, Claudio admits he looked on Hero with no more than ‘a soldiers’ eye’, which implies lust rather than a connection of personalities. Benedick and Beatrice, however, already know each other well. They are notorious for their ‘battle of wits’ and Beatrice reminds Benedick ‘I know you of old’, implying that they have a history. She also explains to Don Pedro that Benedick ‘lent me (his heart) a while… once before he won it of me, with false dice’. This suggests that when the pair were a couple long ago Benedick hurt her, which would explain the disdain she shows on the surface and suggests it is merely a mask for the affection she is still hiding. Their love is older; tried and tested but enduring, whereas Claudio is immature and inexperienced, and it is suggested Hero may not love him in return at all.

Fourthly, a significant contrast between the couples can be drawn by comparing their displays of loyalty. Claudio is quick to dismiss Hero as unfaithful in his first moment of doubt, and therefore immediately deems her unsuitable for marriage to him. It does not take much for him to abandon and humiliate the one he is supposed to be in love with. His honour is clearly more important to him than any of his ties to Hero. On the other hand, when Benedick is tested by Beatrice’s request that he challenge Claudio, he shows that his love for her is more powerful even than his allegiance to his friend, demonstrating in very extreme and unpleasant circumstances his devotion to her. That same devotion allowed him to overcome his reluctance to marry and fear of being cuckolded, and made Beatrice swallow her pride and allow herself to become vulnerable in love once more. It is this devotion, and the numerous times it is proved to us, which convinces the audience that the love between Benedick and Beatrice is a deeper love than Hero and Claudio’s.

NB: A quick look at the main couples in Much Ado. I recommend watching/reading the play first to get the most out of this. Happy to go into more detail if requested.

‘Marrysong’ Analysis – Love & Landscape

You can read ‘Marrysong’ right here (because I couldn’t find a decent link):

He never learned her, quite. Year after year
that territory, without seasons, shifted
under his eye. An hour he could be lost
in the walled anger of her quarried hurt
or turning, see cool water laughing where
the day before there were stones in her voice.
He charted. She made wilderness again.
Roads disappeared. The map was never true.
Wind brought him rain sometimes, tasting of sea –
and suddenly she would change the shape of shores
faultlessly calm. All, all was each day new:
the shadows of her love shortened or grew
like trees seen from an unexpected hill,
new country at each jaunty, helpless journey.
So he accepted that geography, constantly strange.
Wondered. Stayed home increasingly to find
his way among the landscapes of her mind.

Dennis Scott’s ‘Marrysong’ is a poem written in the third person about marriage, and though he deals with a specific couple, their situation is not unique, and so it could apply to many married couples today. The woman in the relationship is depicted as tempestuous and unpredictable, while her husband is left not knowing where he stands and what to do or say. The poem looks on the surface like a sonnet, but it is not – it goes against the norms of poetry, reflecting the fact that the relationship described is non-conventional. The tone at the beginning is one of frustrated bewilderment on the man’s part, but it calms when he gives up trying to work her out, accepts her, and finds her all the more exhilarating for her unpredictability. Scott captures the ever-changing moods of the wife in two main ways.

Firstly, the poem has a stop-start, unpredictable rhythm due to Scott’s use of enjambment and caesura. The meter also rises and falls constantly, and both of these techniques are in keeping with the ever-changing moods of the wife, and give us a small taste of the disorientation her husband feels at her constant emotional fluctuation.

Secondly, he uses an extended metaphor throughout the course of the poem, comparing the woman to a landscape. The ‘territory’ of the wife is unchartable, and though her husband does his best, he is disorientated and ‘never quite learned her’. The landscape described is ‘without seasons’, which is fitting because seasons are very predictable and imply some sort of ordered structure. The reader is told that ‘that territory… shifted under his eye’. This suggests that the man is scrutinizing her, making close observations in his futile attempts to understand her, but even as he watches, she changes, and it seems he cannot win.

‘An hour he could be lost in the walled anger of her quarried hurt’; this implies that not only is the woman’s ‘hurt’ – whatever it may be – very deep (the image of a quarry suggests a large scar on the landscape, building on the ‘territory’ metaphor), but that she’s shut out the man who wants so badly to help and understand her. The word ‘lost’ expresses his vulnerability in these moments, and he comes across as something of a passive victim of her violent mood-swings. Suddenly, though, another change occurs: ‘on turning, [he could] see cool water laughing where the day before there were stones on her voice’. Her laughter is like ‘cool water’ to him – it is restorative, and again, springs up at points he cannot predict. The fact the ‘the day before there had been stones in her voice’ demonstrates the extent of the change. Her words – which only twenty-four hours ago had felt to him like being hit by stones – have morphed into laughter. The ‘stones’ may also be a reference to the quarry metaphor, some of her ‘hurt’ escaping and damaging him as well.

We are told that ‘He charted. She made wilderness again. Roads disappeared. The map was never true’. This again demonstrates the totality of her changes. Everything he once thought he had worked out about her and ‘charted’ is be wiped away when once more she catches him off-guard. The ‘Roads’ are referring to paths he had plotted as safe routes around and through her moods, but they ‘disappeared’, and the unfathomable wilderness returned. ‘Wind brought rain sometimes, tasting of sea’; this imagery seems strange on the surface, because rain is always freshwater, but the wind is an argument between the pair, and the salty rainwater he can taste his own tears. This demonstrates once again that he is a victim this ever-changing ‘territory’, rather than an observer watching at a safe distance.

For the husband ‘All, all each day was new’, and this further stresses his wife’s unpredictability. There seems to be always ‘new country at each jaunty helpless journey’, and ‘helpless’ is exactly how he feels when faced with her moods, ‘so he accepted that geography, constantly strange’. The phrase ‘constantly strange’ is a reference to the fact that she is constantly inconstant, and so any attempt to understand her would be ultimately pointless. He ‘Wondered’ at her too, and this is a play on words – she is a wonder to him, and he wonders about her, but, in keeping with the territory metaphor, he wanders around her landscape. The final sentence of the poem informs us that he ‘stayed at home increasingly to find his way among the landscape of her mind’. This suggests that by staying at home, he gets more of an adventure than anything the outside world has to offer, and by accepting the ‘territory’ – rather that struggling constantly to understand it – he can be happy there.

NB: This analysis is focused on the character of the wife and is by no means in-depth. Happy to go into more detail if requested.

‘If I Could Tell You’ Analysis – Auden & Time

You can read ‘If I Could Tell You’ here:

‘If I Could Tell You’ was written by Auden in 1940, after the beginning of the second World War. It was a time of great uncertainty as the post-war generation was plunged into another conflict, although Auden had left England the year before and so undoubtedly it seemed more distant to him than many poets and artists who remained. Perhaps why this poem seems a more general report of the human condition than an outcry against the war itself.

Firstly, there are clues to the poem’s meaning in its form, which is a Villanelle. There are nineteen lines, divided into five stanzas of three lines and one of four. The first and third lines of the first stanza are repeated at the end of the other stanzas. The second line of every stanza rhymes with the others, and the poem ends with a rhyming couplet – another repetition of lines one and three. This strict structure may represent Auden’s desire to have the same level of control over his life, which (as we shall see) is far less ordered. The frequent repetition and regular meter reflect the unfaltering passage of time, which is key to the message being expressed.

Examining the content, the entire poem seems to be an apologetic response to some unanswerable question a loved one has asked about life and death and the role of time – personified here as it is in many of Auden’s works. As is also typical for Auden, Time has the upper hand and the poem begins ‘Time will say nothing but I told you so’. With this statement Time’s role becomes that of a superior, almost smug onlooker with knowledge of ‘the price we have to pay’. The alliteration of ‘p’ draws attention to this ‘price’, and in the context of the poem this seems likely to be death – surely the only meaningful way to pay a debt to Time. The speaker is not confident about this, however, and vainly promises ‘if I could tell you, I would let you know’. This effectively summarizes the poem; a wish to be wise to Time’s tricks in the face of an uncertain future.

The second stanza contains specific examples of how Time might get the better of us. Auden suggests that we might ‘weep when clowns put on their show’ or ‘stumble when musicians play’. Here, the clowns seem to represent joy and the weeping indicates an inability to feel happy even in a supposedly comedic situation. This also suggests an end to childhood, because clowns are typically children’s entertainers. It is significant because with loss of childhood comes loss of innocence – another thing that Time takes away from us. If we ‘stumble when musicians play’, it likely to be because we are aging and therefore physically weak. Auden intentionally contradicts our expectations of what would usually happen in these situations with a sinister alternative, and reminds us once again that ‘Time will say nothing but I told you so’ when this comes to pass.

According to the third stanza ‘There are no fortunes to be told’. This reinforces the idea that we are unable to see into the future and are thus vulnerable to the whims of Time. However, this is followed by an attempt to compensate by saying ‘because I love you more than I can say/ If I could tell you I would let you know’. This statement is hugely contrasting with the speaker’s attitude to everything else in the poem. He has nothing at all to say about Time, though he wishes that he did, and yet when describing his love he will never be able to say enough. Some critics interpret this stanza as Auden referencing his silenced sexuality, as homosexuality was a criminal offence England until 1967. It could well be the case that Auden was in love and would like it to be known, but was unable to say anything. Although the type of ‘love’ here is not specified, references to roses later in the poem have connotations of romance, and so this interpretation seems plausible.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker observes the natural world – the ‘winds’ and decaying leaves. Strangely, he feels there must be a ‘reason’ for this. It could be that the autumn imagery signals the end of the love mentioned earlier, and the ‘decay’ of a relationship. Alternatively, the ‘decay’ could be intended to remind us of the cyclical nature of life and death – another unavoidable consequence of Time. Because this stanza is a little more ambiguous than those preceding it, Auden used more complex syntax which encourages the reader to spend longer considering what is being said and how best to understand it.

Despite the bleak imagery, in the fifth stanza we are presented with the possibility that ‘perhaps the roses really want to grow’. This could mean that even though life is uncertain and the speaker is aware of his mortality, he would still be willing to develop a romantic relationship with someone. The poem was written in the same year Auden met Kallman, and so this would be fitting. ‘Perhaps’ highlights the continuing uncertainty of the poem, and though the ‘vision’ does ‘intend’ to stay, we are left wondering whether it really will. This sentiment is echoed by another repetition of ‘If I could tell you, I would let you know’.

The final stanza brings the carnival imagery (which began with ‘clowns’) back into play. These images contrast the rest of the poem, making it even more sinister. ‘Suppose the lions all get up and go’ could be symbolic of the speaker’s courage disappearing, as could ‘all the brooks and soldiers’ running away. This is a play on the word ‘run’, suggesting cowardice but also creating the image of running water, which is frequently used in poetry as a symbol of time passing. The penultimate line, ‘Will Time say nothing but I told you so?’ turns the statement which has been repeated throughout into a question, displaying yet more uncertainty on the speaker’s part. The poem ends with the final promise ‘If I could tell you, I would let you know.’ Which shows that the person being spoken to is still the priority.

All though this poem seems to be about the inescapable and unpredictable future, the message is sometimes interpreted as being that Time becomes obsolete, precisely because we cannot know what will happen to us. This gives a sort of fearlessness to what the speaker is saying; there is no sense in worrying about things beyond our control, so we are free to enjoy the present. For Auden it could have been that his budding relationship with Kallman was the cause of this attitude, but whatever the reason it is important to understand that this poem is not necessarily a helpless or pessimistic one.


NB: Due to the nature of poetry, some of this analysis is my personal interpretation. Happy to give direct sources for particular parts if needed.




Plath, Bees & Alienation

You can read ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ here: and ‘The Bee Meeting’ here:

Sylvia Plath’s issues with mental illness and the emotions these prompted often influenced her poetry. In the poems ‘The Bee Meeting’ and ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, Plath explores the theme of alienation in several ways. Many of these reflect her own feelings as both poems begin as a literal report of events from her life (although they are not autobiographical works) and become distorted through the imagery she uses as the speaker’s emotions begin to colour the situation. In ‘The Bee Meeting’ a gathering of beekeepers in the village becomes sinister as the speaker’s fear and confusion escalates. In ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, a ‘locked’ and ‘dangerous’ crate of bees delivered to the speaker takes on a Pandora’s box-like level of threat and seems to represent the dangers of the speaker allowing her feelings expression. This could be a reflection of Plath’s worries concerning the content of her poetry.

In ‘The Bee Meeting’, the alienation of the speaker is evident from the first line, which asks the question ‘Who are these people at the bridge to meet me?’. The following line establishes the presence of ‘the rector, the midwife’ and ‘the sexton’; these people represent three stages of life – birth, marriage and death. It is also significant that they have clearly defined roles in the community, as this contrasts the speaker’s own feeling of not having a place and is something which Plath herself struggled with.

Another important aspect of the speaker’s alienation in ‘The Bee Meeting’ is the differences in the clothing of the speaker and the other characters. Plath deliberately mentions a ‘sleeveless summery dress’ that offers ‘no protection’ in contrast with the others, ‘all gloved and covered’ in bee-keeping suits. ‘I’ and ‘they’ are juxtaposed which emphasizes the contrast and increases the sense of separation. It is not just the fact that the speaker seems underprepared (‘why did nobody tell me?’) that makes her an outsider, but also the sinister, ritualistic imagery that becomes evident from this point in the poem. The ‘veils tacked to ancient hats’ make the rest of the group anonymous, shown in the second stanza with the speakers’ question ‘Which is the rector now… Which is the midwife…?’ Their loss of individuality makes them seemingly even more unified against the speaker, who feels ‘nude as a chicken neck’ – a phrase which has connotations of vulnerability and execution. She begins to see herself as a victim, and this is particularly significant in her alienation from the group. The interrogative that follows – ‘does nobody love me?’ – again highlights her defencelessness. The fact that somebody else dresses her later in the second stanza reinforces this and we could view it as an almost childlike dependence on others for protection.

Clothing is less significant in ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ because the speaker is alienated from the bees themselves rather than other people. One of the things that ‘appals [her] most of all’ is the ‘din’ of the bees which becomes, in her mind, a language she cannot speak – the ‘unintelligible syllables’ of ‘furious Latin’. This, if we take the box to be a representation of her mind, shows her inability to understand her own thoughts and her fear of exploring them, which in itself is an isolating experience likely to contribute to feeling alienated. The phrase ‘furious Latin’ leads into imagery of a roman mob and the speaker’s confession ‘I am not a Caesar’, by which she means she is not a leader, and doubts that she will be capable of controlling her emotions once she starts to voice them. The fact that she is excluded from what the bees are saying seems to prompt second thoughts about whether she wants them at all, and she reminds herself that ‘They can be sent back. / They can die’, although the passive voice suggests that she doesn’t want to be the one to do it.

The desire to be invisible is significant in both poems. In ‘The Bee Meeting’ the speaker expresses this wish by saying ‘I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice’ and later ‘If I stand very still they will think I am cow parsley.’ In ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, a similar sentiment is clear as the speaker wonders ‘if they would forget me if I… stood back and turned into a tree.’ In all three instances, the speaker believes that the best way to go unnoticed is to turn into a form of plant. This could be a response to the fear that the plants in ‘The Bee Meeting’ inspire in her. The ‘bean flowers with black eyes and leaves like bored hearts’ and the question ‘Is it blood clots the tendrils are dragging up that string?’ and later the ‘spiky armoury’ of the gorse all seem sinister. However, becoming part of the vegetation is also an allusion to the mythological tale of Daphne, who turned into a tree to keep herself from being sexually vulnerable and to avoid the advances of Apollo. There are several mentions of virgins in ‘The Bee Meeting’, including a simile for the hive itself, which is ‘snug as a virgin’. Virginity may be another reason behind the alienation of the speaker because it is something that others want, and therefore can be seen as a position of power or vulnerability. Some ancient rituals involved virgins as a human sacrifices, which returns us to idea that the speaker is a victim.

Because Plath wrote these poems after finding out that her husband Ted Hughes had been having an affair, it is possible that she personifies other plants in ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ – ‘the laburnum’ with ‘blond colonnades’ and ‘the petticoats of the cherry’ – intentionally to make them seem like women with attributes of beauty she doesn’t have herself. It is possible that she sees herself as an outsider because she feels less desirable.

Plath increases the sense of alienation in both poems by using imagery which portrays the villagers and the bees as groups of which the speaker is not a part. In ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, ‘the swarmy feeling of African hands’ alludes to people packed onto the slave ships and creates a sense of fear and confinement which is uncomfortable and oppressive to her even though she is not the one experiencing it. As we have seen, the bees also seem like a Roman mob speaking angrily and incomprehensibly. Both of these are large groups united by a shared feeling or experience that she was excluded from. In ‘The Bee Meeting’, it is obvious that the villagers become an entity which she finds threatening, although her constant questions suggest that she is unsure what it really happening. Because of this, she does not give a clear metaphor until halfway through the second stanza, at which point she sees ‘everybody is nodding a square black head’. This is suggestive of the square blacks hats that judges wore when passing the death sentence, and thus the others become a group of judges seemingly condemning her to death. Immediately following this is the metaphor ‘they are knights in visors’, which both unites the villagers and keeps them anonymous while linking them with another form of violence. At the end of the second stanza, the speaker is ‘led though a beanfield’ – something that the Ku Klux Klan did with their victims. Later in the poem she finds herself in a circle of hives, and the name Ku Klux Klan comes from the Greek ‘kyklos’, meaning circle, which again is threatening as she is surrounded.

‘The Bee Meeting’ ends with the speaker apparently resigned to her role as sacrificial victim or ‘magician’s girl who does not flinch’. This would suggest that she has come to understand what is happening, as a magician’s assistant would know how the trick worked and that she was perfectly safe. However, the final line asks ‘whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold’ and so we are left with the impression that the rest of the villagers know something she doesn’t, and she looks to her own death, the ‘long white box’ seeming to be her coffin. On the other hand, the end of ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ is more decisive, as the speaker resolves to play ‘sweet God’ and set the bees free. This could be a metaphor for Plath’s decision to make her feelings known through poetry, though she must have anticipated it would alienate her from those who couldn’t understand or didn’t like it.

In conclusion, alienation is shown in both poems as a very important aspect of the personas that Plath takes on. Victimhood, appearance and lack of communication are key areas where this separation seems particularly pronounced. It is interesting to note that the alienation itself is not what frightens either speaker, and this is probably due to the fact that Plath did not always enjoy the company of others, particularly during the depressive stages of her illness, which were prevalent after her separation from Hughes at the time she wrote both poems.

Freud & Frankenstein

In a Freudian analysis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the most significant view taken is that the Creature and creator are two aspects of the same person. This comes from Freud’s idea of the ‘psychologically divided self’. He held that there are three parts of the human mind. The first is the id, containing basic instinctual drives, ‘it is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality … we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations’, and most importantly, the id ‘knows no judgements of value: no good and evil, no morality’ and this is what makes it dark – the id is seen as nothing more than the selfish drive to get what we want, the subconscious in every mind and the basis of our behaviour. Contrasting this we have the conscious ego, which by Freud’s definition ‘attempts to mediate between id and reality, it is often obliged to cloak the Unconscious commands of the id with its own Preconscious rationalizations … taking notice of reality even when the id has remained rigid and unyielding’. The ego contains reason where the id contains passion, and it is the aspect of ourselves which is encouraged to be dominant in civilized society. Freud also identified the super-ego, or conscience, which punishes the ego with feelings of guilt if the id is indulged too much.

  A Freudian analysis of Shelley’s novel understands that the Creature and creator represent the ‘id’ and the ‘ego’ of one entity, the Creature being the embodiment of Frankenstein’s subconscious mind and therefore the darkest aspects of his personality. However, because they are physically separate, he is allowed to act independently to Frankenstein, and without the intervention of the ego, the id is able to seek satisfaction of its desires completely unchecked. This can be backed up by the text as the Creature acts in keeping with Frankenstein’s own interests, repressed as they may be. Because of the framed narrative of the story, Frankenstein is allowed to edit heavily or even lie in his account to Walton, who we are unable to trust either because of his desire for glory. We know then that in some cases the subtext – and what we can infer from our knowledge of Frankenstein’s personality – is far more important than the tale as he portrays it. For example, he never mentions a desire to kill anyone but the Creature, but in fact it is not difficult to see that every murder victim could be perceived by the doctor as a threat.

  While Frankenstein is in recovery following the ‘consummation of [his] toils’, he receives a letter from Elizabeth in which she praises ‘Justine … the most grateful little creature in the world’ and ‘darling William’. With Frankenstein’s distorted sense of family and the jealousy we suspect it encouraged, it seems too much of a coincidence that these two favourites of Elizabeth were the first to be targeted by the Creature. We also feel that Frankenstein could have done more to prevent Justine’s death had he made any effort whatsoever to explain or plead guilty himself. However, he dismisses this course of action as futile owing to the truth sounding like ‘the ravings of insanity’ and the Creature being too ‘capable’ to be arrested, problems which seem suddenly irrelevant when he is being accused of murder himself later on. We conclude that he cannot, therefore, really want Justine freed.

  In an exaggerated manner, this does follow the expected behaviour for the ego, sometimes seeming to indulge the id and at other times rejecting it with disgust. More evidence that Frankenstein and the Creature are one and the same comes when, after William’s death, the doctor reflects on ‘the being whom [he] had cast among mankind, and endowed with the will and power to effect purposes of horror, such as the deed which he had now done … my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was near to me’. Two things become clear in this passage, the first being that if the Creature is it’s creator’s ‘own spirit let loose’ then the bond between them must be more than simply paternal, and secondly that the language used here strongly suggests that the Creature was designed for the purpose of killing. Frankenstein is also foreshadowing when he mentions the destruction of ‘all that was near to [him]’. At this point the Creature has only claimed one victim and so the presumption that there will be more could be interpreted as an expectation of Frankenstein’s based on what he wants, and what he subconsciously knows the Creature will do because that was his purpose all along.

  The rest of the Creature’s victims follow this pattern – they posed some sort of problem to Frankenstein and were swiftly dealt with. Henry Clerval, to whom he ‘raved incessantly’ concerning the Creature, and who therefore would know too much and be able to hold Frankenstein accountable for his actions, is killed. Frankenstein is also always close by when the murders are committed; he ended up in Ireland at the same time Clerval died, which at this point we regard to be suspicious rather than coincidental. Elizabeth too, when Victor is faced with the prospect of marrying her (something we know he is adverse to due to the dream in which his fiancée transformed into his dead mother in his arms, and his revealing exclamation about the ‘miserable marriage’ that he would ‘rather banish [him]self forever … and wander a friendless outcast over the earth’ than participate in), is murdered on their wedding night. This is another instance where Frankenstein’s unconscious mind seems to suit the Creature’s intentions. He ‘earnestly intreated’ Elizabeth to go to their room, claiming he thought it best for her safety, but conveniently renders her alone and unprotected when the Creature arrives.

  Frankenstein, in his ‘unremitting ardour’ for scientific progress, detaches himself from reality for a period of years and loses control at the point where control is most vital. In doing so he unleashes chaos in the form of the Creature who has a better capability in his superior size and strength to carry out Frankenstein’s unconscious desires. Well before Freud’s terminology was available, Shelley displays her appreciation of the need for the ego’s restraint on the id by showing what would happen if we gave in to the darker side of ourselves.

  After the nature of the murders of Frankenstein’s supposed loved ones, the most significant evidence from the text supporting the id and ego theory is the seemingly inseparable fates of the Creature and Victor. The Creature realises this to an extent and tries to explain to Frankenstein during their confrontation in the Alps that they are ‘bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us’. True to form, Frankenstein does not understand himself well enough to recognise the truth, but the reader can see past this, and as Frankenstein’s descent into madness accelerates towards the end of the book, the language he uses becomes more and more similar to the speech of the Creature. In his desperation, he even admits he ‘often endeavoured to put an end to the existence I loathed’. Here he is referring to suicide as interchangeable with destroying the Creature, indicating that they are bound together in death as in life, and this proves to be the case. In their final pursuit across Europe, the Creature and he become almost indistinguishable – he prays for the ‘spirits’ of the Night to aid him, giving himself over to darkness as the Creature did, and wishing his own agony on the ‘hellish monster’ who is already tormented. The Creature calls Frankenstein a ‘miserable wretch’ – something Frankenstein had called him from the beginning – and leaves a trail to guide his creator on the hunt, unable to separate himself from him. He also found him sustenance which dragged out the chase further, exposing their dependence on each other.

  However, this proves to be the end of both of them. Frankenstein dies having been weakened by the ‘horrible pilgrimage’. He reaches the point where his behaviour cannot sustained any further, and soon after his death the Creature takes his own life, jumping into the flames as Frankenstein is cremated, though it become his cremation as well, and he rightly refers to it as ‘my funeral pile’. Both of them proved to be such destructive forces that their end was inevitable, and the ties between them made it obvious that it would also be mutual. One half of a being cannot continue without the other, and this goes some way to explaining why the Creature fed and encouraged Frankenstein when he could have left him to die. Their bond had always been more profound than that of a parent and child, as it seems on the surface, and the nature of their deaths only confirms this.

NB: This is an overview of the text from the Freudian perspective (one of many interpretations) and I’d recommend reading the book first to get the most out of it. 


·       Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Penguin Freud Library 2, 1933

·       Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology, Penguin Freud Library 11, 1933

·       Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley, 1831

‘Lullaby’ Analysis – Auden & Romanticism

You can read ‘Lullaby’ here:

Lullaby, written by Auden in January 1937, is a poem with an overwhelming quality of tenderness and a celebration of love between two flawed human beings. Flaws are, in fact, essential to the message of the poem (which I will examine in more detail later), and to mirror this Auden uses an irregular rhyme scheme and varying meter filled with imperfections. Mostly, however, the poem is written in trochaic tetrameter – common in nursery rhymes and therefore befitting this ‘Lullaby’, which is of course is addressed to a sleeping man.

In the simplest possible interpretation this is just a love poem, but under closer examination, ‘Lullaby’ appears to be a condemnation of Romanticism, and gives an insight into Auden’s attitude to love and relationships. He wasn’t a sceptic by any means, but perhaps his tendencies towards the scientific and mechanical explain his more grounded approach. His objection was to the more traditional Romantic values which in this poem he seems to condemn as naïve and unhelpful, particularly where they relate to love. ‘Lullaby’ can be seen as a call to accept that love is in fact more valuable from a Realist’s perspective.

The intentional subversion of Romanticism begins almost immediately: ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm’. The two important details here are firstly that he describes his lover as ‘human’ and, secondly, that he readily admits to being ‘faithless’. The traditional Romantic attitude elevates love as an almost otherworldly or divine experience. Here Auden brings the entire concept back down to earth with the word ‘human’ and all it’s connotations of fallibility and mortality etcetera. The Romantics also valued monogamy and dedication, and so by declaring himself ‘faithless’, Auden sets himself up as a contrast to the Byronic hero we meet later in the poem. By bringing these two ideas into a moment of intimacy, Auden establishes that a more realistic attitude to love doesn’t damage a relationship.

The next ideal to be unpicked is that of childhood innocence – in particular Rousseau’s belief that children are born innocent and ‘natural’ into a society that eventually corrupts them. Once again, Auden introduces a reminder that the state of childhood is fleeting and here ‘Time and fever’ are the corruptors. The mention of ‘individual beauty’ is significant as individuality was prized by the Romantics, yet Auden closely follows this with ‘the grave proves the child ephemeral’. This seems to suggest that any attempts to remain individual are futile due to the universal inevitability of death. Auden completes the first stanza by stating that although ‘mortal’ and ‘guilty’, in his eyes his lover is ‘entirely beautiful’. This undermines Romantic convention and the need to exaggerate his virtues.

The same sentiment is continued in the second stanza, where Auden introduces the image of lovers lying in an ‘ordinary swoon’. To the Romantics, a swoon was anything but ordinary – everything relating to love was viewed as sublime. The poem then concentrates on an ‘abstract insight’ of ‘Universal love and hope’ sent by Venus. To Auden this is useless and he describes it as ‘Grave’, revealing that he is suspicious of the vision’s message. It is likely that to him these ideas are not viable and therefore not worth dwelling on. However, while the vision is disregarded by Auden, in a suitably dramatic landscape ‘Among the glaciers and the rocks’ the message is better received. Auden describes a hermit (a common Romantic figure because they willingly undergo hardship for the sake of increased spirituality, introspection and closeness to nature) in ‘ecstasy’ at the thought of this unrealistic notion. An alternative interpretation is that Auden dismisses Venus’ message to be nothing but a delusion of the hermit brought on by the difficulties of that lifestyle.

‘Certainty and fidelity’ and a reminder that they too will ‘pass like vibrations of a bell’ begin the third stanza. The mention of ‘midnight’ and the image of a bell tolling remind us that Auden is aware his time on Earth with his lover is limited, as is everything else. This pragmatic approach to life and death prevents Auden raising the same ‘pedantic boring cry’ as ‘fashionable madmen’, or in other words the overused Byronic hero – an ideal presented often in Romantic literature. This is a criticism of everything that ideal represents. Instead of listening to what the Romantics have to say, Auden recommends that ‘Not a whisper, not a thought, / Not a kiss nor look be lost’ between lovers. This is simple and realistic advice that places the focus on very human aspects of a relationship.

Auden emphasizes his point about the futility of pursuing Romantic ideals with the phrase ‘Beauty, midnight, vision dies’, and then turns his attention back to the sleeping subject of the poem. He mentions his ‘knocking heart’ – another reminder of their humanity – and expresses plainly his wish for people to ‘Find our mortal world enough’ rather than seeking to elevate their relationships as the Romantics would do. By showing his satisfaction with the comparatively simple joy of his loved one’s company, Auden’s affection appears more genuine and certain than that of the ‘fashionable madmen’. With an emphatic ending on the words ‘human love’, ‘Lullaby’ asserts that relationships must be built on this emotion rather than visions from Venus or the desire to emulate Romantic ideals, as this would result in an inauthentic experience.

NB: Due to the nature of poetry, some of this analysis is my personal interpretation. Some is elaboration on the ideas in the first source listed. Happy to give direct sources for particular parts if needed.